Modal Pentatonics

The idea of Modal Pentatonics is to create a five note scale that retains the sound of the Mode. Unfortunately there is no formula for working this out that we can apply to all Modes of the Major Scale to create the 7 Modal Pentatonics, instead we have to work out which 5 of the 7 notes are the most important to the sound of the scale and use these to try and retain the Modal Sound but by using 5, rather than 7, notes.

The disadvantage is there is no 'hard and fast' rules for defining a Modal Pentatonic, it comes down to which notes you feel are most important in the scale.

The advantage is, you can apply this concept to any scale to create different Pentatonic Scales e.g. Harmonic Minor Pentatonic, Melodic Minor Pentatonic, Dominant Pentatonics, etc.

Let's have a look at how this works, and one example of a Modal Pentatonics for each Mode...

C Ionian Pentatonic

The Ionian Mode of C Major is made up from: C, D, E, F, G, A and B which is the Major Scale. We give each note's position in the scale a name, this is called a 'Degree', in the case of the Ionian Mode, the C is I, D is II, and so on C(I), D(II), E(III), F(IV), G(V), A(VI), B(VII). We can use these Degrees to calculate other scales.

In this case, we know that the Ionian Mode and Major Scale the same, therefore our formula for working out which Degrees to use in the Major Pentatonic will retain the Ionian sound perfectly. In this case it's the I, II, II, V and VI Degrees which construct the Major Pentatonic giving us: C(I), D(II), E(III), G(V), A(VI).

Degrees vs. Intervals

Don't get your Degrees and Intervals mixed up! A Degree describes a notes position in a Scale. An Interval describes the distance between two notes, in the case of a scale this is usually the distance between the Root note and the Degree another note. For example, the Interval between the I and II Degrees of the Major Scale is a Major 2nd. Below I have placed the Intervals of the Ionian Pentatonic in brackets after the notes, if you are confident with Intervals, this should allow you to calculate the Ionian Pentatonic in any key.

Ionian Pentatonic: C, D, E, G, A (Root, Maj 2nd, Maj 3rd, Per 5th, Maj 6th)

D Dorian Pentatonic

We know that the Dorian Mode is a Minor Mode, as the first triad formed from the notes would be: D, F and A which is a D Minor chord. So we could use the same formula as we use to create a Minor Pentatonic, i.e. I, III, IV, V, VII. However, this would give us D, F, G, A and C which is just a D Minor Pentatonic. Although this would work fine, it sounds exactly the same as the Aeolian Mode, and we want it to sound more like the Dorian Mode.

So, how do we separate the Aeolian and Dorian Modes? Well, in order to build the Dorian Pentatonic, we have to look at what makes the Dorian Mod ea different from the Aeolian Mode...

Aeolian Root Maj 2nd Min 3rd Per 4th Per 5th Min 6th Min7th
Dorian Root Maj 2nd Min 3rd Per 4th Per 5th Maj 6th Min 7th

So the only difference is that we have a Major 6th in place of the Minor 6th found in the Aeolian Mode. So this note is a pretty important in getting our Pentatonic to sound Dorian, in this particular case it's the note of B.

We can replace the Per 5th (A) found in the Minor Pentatonic D, F, G, A, C with a Minor 6th (B) giving us: D, F, G, B, C. However, if we wanted to retain the Per 4th (G) and Per 5th (A) of the scale, we could replace the Min 7th (C) with the Minor 6th (B), giving us: D, F, G, A, B. Either method will achieve our goal of sounding Dorian, and not Aeolian therefore I've charted both versions below...

Dorian Pentatonic Version 1: D, F, G, B, C (Root, Min 3rd, Per 4th, Min 6th, Min 7th)


Dorian Pentatonic Version 2: D, F, G, A, B (Root, Min 3rd, Per 4th, Per 5th, Min 6th)

E Phrygian Pentatonic

Again, we have a similar situation to the D Dorian Pentatonic, in that if we just use the usual Pentatonic Minor Formula (1-3-4-5-7) to work out the Pentatonic, we end up with the E Minor Pentatonic, which will therefore sound Aeolian and not Phrygian. So, again, we need to look at the differences, this time between the Aeolian and Phrygian modes...

Aeolian Root Maj 2nd Min 3rd Per 4th Per 5th Min 6th Min7th
Phrygian Root Min 2nd Min 3rd Per 4th Per 5th Min 6th Min 7th

This time it's the 2nd degree of the scale which is different, the Maj 2nd found in the Aeolian becomes a Minor 2nd. In the E Minor Pentatonic we have the notes of: E, G, A, B, D, as we cannot replace the Root with the Minor 2nd, we have to replace the Minor 3rd, giving us: E, F, A, B, D.

E Phrygian Pentatonic: E, F, A, B, D (Root, Min 2nd, Per 4th, Per 5th, Min 7th)

F Lydian Pentatonic

This is where it becomes a little easier, if we apply our Pentatonic Formula (1-3-4-5-7) to the Degrees of the Lydian Mode, we get: F, A, B, C, E. This retains the sound of the Lydian mode nicely. This is because the Lydian is a Major Mode, and the Ionian Mode and Lydian differ in one way only, the Lydian has a Augmented 4th, like so...

Ionian Root Maj 2nd Maj 3rd Per 4th Per 5th Maj 6th Maj 7th
Lydian Root Maj 2nd Maj 3rd Aug 4th Per 5th Maj 6th Maj 7th

As the 4th is already a part of our Pentatonic Formula we've already captured the sound of the Mode without further tweaking.

Lydian Pentatonic: F, A, B, C, E (Root, Maj 3rd, Aug 4th, Per 5th, Maj 7th)

G Mixolydian Pentatonic

Again, the Mixolydian is a Major Mode, and therefore we must compare it to the Ionian Mode, like so...

Ionian Root Maj 2nd Maj 3rd Per 4th Per 5th Maj 6th Maj 7th
Mixolydian Root Maj 2nd Maj 3rd Per 4th Per 5th Maj 6th Min 7th

So, the only difference here is the 7th, in the Ionian Mode it's a Major 7th but in the Mixolydian Mode it's a Minor 7th. Which Mean our Pentatonic Formula (1-3-4-5-7) is good here too giving us...

G Mixolydian Pentatonic: G, B, C, D, F (Root, Maj 3rd, Per 4th, Per 5th, Min 7th)

A Aeolian Pentatonic

The Aeolian is the Relative Natural Minor, so we can use the Minor Pentatonic Formula (1-3-4-5-7) here giving us...

A Aeolian Pentatonic: A, C, D, E, G (Root, Min 3rd, Per 4th, Per 5th, Min 7th)

B Locrian Pentatonic

This is an interesting one, as the Locrian Mode is neither Minor nor Major, it is Diminished. However, it's closer to Minor than Major and extremely similar in structure to the Phrygian Mode, which is a minor mode, with only one difference, let's have a look...

Phrygian Root Min 2nd Min 3rd Per 4th Per 5th Min 6th Min 7th
Locrian Root Min 2nd Min 3rd Per 4th Dim 5th Min 6th Min 7th

The Locrian Mode contains a Diminished 5th, whereas the Phrygian has a Perfect 5th, it's this Diminished 5th that makes the Mode Diminished sounding. As it's the 5th, that's changed we can apply our Minor Pentatonic Formula (1-3-4-5-7) again and retain the mode's sound, giving us...

B Locrian Pentatonic: B, D, E, F, A (Root, Min 3rd, Per 4th, Dim 5th, Min 7th)